Contrary to popular belief, the art of intelligence and counterintelligence is not really all that new to the United States, but goes all the way back to the days of The American Revolution. Had it not been for the bravery of men and women alike, and the utter will to be free from the British rule, our military leaders would not have been so well prepared to engage the enemy and win in decisive battles. Long before the conception of organizations like the National Security Agency (NSA), Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) or the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) , George Washington served as the chief intelligence officer and spymaster of our nation. He headed a covert ring of spies who’s intel, bravery and for some, ultimate sacrifice would help shape the outcome of the war. There were many rings of spies during this time period but, none as effective or famous. The first evidence colonial of spying or espionage occurred in 1765 when the Boston Caucus Club and The Loyal 9, formed the Sons of Liberty, which was organized in the summer of 1765 as a means to protest the passing of the Stamp Act of 1765.
Their motto was, “No taxation without representation.” This group organized and carried out which The Boston Tea Party. By the end of 1765 the Sons of Liberty existed in every colony. Some people contend that, without his spies, General George Washington would not have been as successful as he was during the American Revolutionary War. Some would also say that, the spies were the determining factor in the outcome of the war which led to our nation becoming what it is today. In this paper I will talk about one specific set of spies. Probably, most notable of them all was The Culper Spy Ring. Better known as George Washington’s Secret Six. Although there were many different spy accounts during the war, none were as significant as the Culper Ring. By the summer of 1778, George Washington was desperate to know where the British would strike next.
To that end, he unleashed his unlikely ring of spies on New York City and Connecticut, charged with discovering the enemy’s battle plans. This wasn’t a highly trained or sophisticated band of spies. In fact, among their ranks were the likes of Benjamin Tallmadge (AKA John Bolton) a Yale Graduate, Abraham Woodhull (AKA Samuel Culper, Sr.) a young Quaker torn between political principle and family loyalty, Caleb Brewster a swashbuckling sailor addicted to the perils of espionage, Austin Roe a harddrinking barkeep, Nathaniel Hale a Yale-educated cavalryman who was captured then executed. Anna Smith Strong, was also said to have aided in the spy ring’s activities.
She reportedly used the laundry on her clothesline to leave signals of Brewster’s location for meetings with Woodhull. These unlikely characters would ultimately be dubbed the Culper Ring. Robert Townsend, an informant who posed as a Loyalist coffee-shop owner and merchant while working as a society journalist also helped the Culper Ring. As a reporter Townsend was able to obtain information from the British at society gatherings. Despite some strained relations within the group and constant pressure from Washington to send more information, the Culper Spy Ring achieved more than any other American or British intelligence network during the war. The information collected and passed on by the ring from 1778 to war’s end in 1783 concerned key British troop movements, fortifications and plans in New York and the surrounding region.
Perhaps the group’s greatest achievement came in 1780, when it uncovered British plans to ambush the newly arrived French army in Rhode Island (my home state). Without the spy ring’s warnings to Washington, the Franco-American alliance may well have been damaged or destroyed by this surprise attack. The Culper Spy Ring has also been credited with uncovering information involving the treasonous correspondence between Benedict Arnold and John Andre, chief intelligence officer under General Henry Clinton, commander of the British forces in New York, who were conspiring to give the British control over the army fort at West Point. Major Andre was captured and hung as a spy in October 1780, on Washington’s orders.With military communications coded by intelligence officer Alexander Hamilton.
The Continental Congress established numerous secret intelligence committees, including the Secret Committee; which became the Committees of (Secret) Correspondence, chaired by Benjamin Franklin; and the Committee on Spies, charged with the task of purchasing weapons for the revolutionaries abroad. Members of these committees included the likes of John Jay, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Robert Livingston. Initially, Congress directed foreign agents on operations abroad, though after the passing of the Constitution, President Washington took over such activities, using the Congressional exemption that allowed him to keep secret the spending of the president’s Secret Service or contingency fund. Congress had begun appropriating funds for the president’s discretionary use in 1790, a tradition that has continued until the present.
During the Revolution, Washington’s spy networks included the Culper Ring headed by Yale graduate Major Benjamin Tallmadge, which monitored British troops occupying New York City and sent reports back to the future president through a system of dead drops and couriers. Other Washington spies were not so lucky, such as Benjamin Tallmadge’s classmate and close friend and probably the most famous of them all, Nathan Hale, who was captured by British forces and executed on a spying mission behind enemy lines. As the first U.S. spy to be executed, Hale was honored with a statue at Yale in 1914. There was also a copy of this statue placed at the CIA headquarters’ entrance in Virginia in 1973.
Given the number persons in the intelligence community that came from Yale and the rest of the Ivy League, in a tradition dating back to the American Revolution this is was quite appropriate. In conclusion, I spoke about the early stages of the spy rings (Sons Of Liberty), how the need for spies came about; the dangers of the spy game and the ultimate sacrifice that some paid for our freedom and the effectiveness of the Culper Six. Their courage and loyalty to their country stands as an example of what can be accomplished with the least of training and resources. As I stated earlier, the war would’ve gone in a totally different direction had General Washington not enlisted the Culper Spy Ring. Their efforts and bravery proved to play a vital role in the colonial army being able to thwart the plans of the British and ultimately win our independence.
GEORGE WASHINGTON’S SECRET SIX The Spy Ring that Saved the American Revolution. (2013). Kirkus Reviews, 81(19), 173. Washington’s spies : the story of America’s first spy ring / Alexander Rose. http://www.ushistory.org/declaration/related/sons.htm
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